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Candidates and PACs Brazenly Sync Strategies Ahead of Midterms

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Democratic candidates in ongoing primary elections are experimenting with a new scheme to skirt campaign finance rules. Let’s call it red-boxing.

Red-boxing is when candidates embed on their websites a box of text, often bounded in a red box, containing ad-targeting requests for sympathetic political action committees (PACs) to read and use for their “independent” purchases of radio, TV, and online advertising in support of the candidate. This sort of activity was recently highlighted by New York Times reporter Shane Goldmacher, who seems to have also coined the term “red-boxing.”

Goldmacher reported the case of Oregon state representative Kurt Schrader, who red-boxed specific language on his campaign website that his constituents “need to see, read, and see on the go” before listing a set of talking points against his primary opponent and including a link to more detailed opposition research. This cleverly worded phrase indicates the campaign is looking for ads on TV (“see”), radio (“hear”), and mobile device-targeted online ads (“see on the go”) that deliver the messaging points that then follow. The red-box text will often list targeting details as well.

What separates this tactic from other kinds of information posted on a candidate’s website is that it is often placed on website pages specifically listed as “Media Info” pages, not geared to the casual site visitor. Hiding in plain sight, red-box information often adds the desired demographic data, too: “Black voters ages 45+ in Durham and white women ages 45+ in Orange” reads one red-boxed directive from a North Carolina Democratic candidate.

This clever trick – “a mockery of campaign finance laws,” as the NYT piece puts it – skirts anti-collusion regulations enacted over decades. Yet, it is hardly the only such tool used by political actors today.

The rules put in place between the post-Watergate election reforms and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United prohibit candidates and PACs from collaborating or synchronizing campaign advertisement strategies, but these rules have not kept up with politicos and their schemes.

The laws allow “independent” PACs to purchase advertising on behalf of a candidate but prohibit the PAC and the campaign from collaborating on the content and targeting of such messages. However, if they are placed openly on a campaign website, and boxed in red, these detailed ad targeting instructions are just minding their own business, right?

Republican campaigns have done similar things as well, without being quite so obvious. They have used obscure Twitter accounts and blogs hosted on the Medium platform to share polling data between PACs and campaigns. This year, Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance extracted vital campaign information from an unlisted blog post set up by Vance’s billionaire benefactor, Peter Thiel.

The current state of campaign finance regulation is essentially a farce. These tactics also do nothing to help restore the faith of voters in the democratic process, something that the Government Accountability Institute has explored before.

By prohibiting direct coordination but giving a free pass to “publicly available internet materials,” the Federal Elections Commission cripples its own legitimacy. In fact, both major parties have full-fledged websites that are basically red-boxes in their entirety.

Since both parties benefit from this free pass, chances for any sort of legislated solution to the problem would appear slim.